Water and Coffee: Ensuring an Equitable Relationship

kim elena 2By Kim Elena Ionescu, SCAA Director of Sustainability

I’m writing this article during the height of summer in the United States, when water is most likely 
to be a hot topic (pun intended) on the news. 
But while water’s appearance in the media tends 
to be seasonal, it’s equally necessary every day of the year, for every creature on earth. As I listened 
to my colleagues in California say with hope in 
their voices that this year’s El Niño weather pattern might bring some drought relief, it occurred to me that while coffee people here in the United States regularly acknowledge that farmers are at the mercy of the weather, those of us who don’t work in the agricultural sector seldom see our dependence on the rain quite as clearly.

Despite the fact that water comprises 70 percent of the earth’s surface, 55 percent of our bodies, and upwards of 98 percent of the beverage that sustains all of us, we don’t spend much time thinking much about water. Filling the need to bring this to mind, water was one of the themes of the 2015 SCAA Symposium, where a scientist, a barista, an economist, and a development guru shared perspectives on the complex and fascinating relationship between water and coffee.

Coffee Affects Water

We All Drink Downstream” was the
 title of Paul Hicks’s talk, and readers of this publication may remember an article he co-authored in these pages in 2013 that delves into how washing coffee impacts the availability and quality of water in coffee-producing communities. Some coffee-producing countries regulate larger mills, and a few excellent examples exist of mills that have instituted programs to reduce their water consumption and recycle what they use. However, in most places, water use is still largely unregulated, especially when it comes to small farms that wash tiny quantities of coffee individually, but collectively represent the majority of coffee produced and processed in many regions of the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

While water may be at its most visible in post-harvest processing, the way the coffee plant is grown is equally—if not more—important to the protection of water resources on local and regional levels. For example, coffee planted on steep slopes without shade trees encourages accelerated soil erosion during heavy rains, which leads not only to malnourished coffee trees, but also to contaminated rivers that cannot maintain a healthy balance of oxygen for the plants and animals that live there, or for the communities downstream.

Water Affects Coffee

From farm to shop, coffee workers must commit to being conscious of how we use and affect water, because we are responsible to
the communities that surround us and share water with us. That said, while we may feel powerful, water is much more powerful than 
we are, especially when we can’t get enough of it. In “Drought is the New Frost,” Keith Flury demonstrated how changes in Brazil’s climate have led to shifts in the optimal regions for coffee production, and to drought replacing frost as the greatest threat to the country’s production. In contrast to the rest of the coffee-growing world, many farms in Brazil irrigate their coffee, and so are able to respond to
the immediate deficit of rain, but even this short-term solution draws on water resources from underground basins which are under threat everywhere (again, see: California). And because of Brazil’s production scale, seeing drought as the new frost not only means considering environmental consequences but also economic implications—water, or the lack thereof, is tangibly changing the prices received by coffee producers worldwide on a daily basis.

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Moving from macro to micro, Flavio Borem explored the effects of different processing methods on coffee cell structure in his Symposium talk, “Beyond Wet and Dry.” Borem acknowledged the water savings that pulped natural and sun-dried natural processing offer versus washing, and explained to the audience why natural coffees are different and, as such, why they must be dried very slowly to achieve consistent and high-quality results. Shifting popular opinion and overcoming historical biases may take years, but specific data on temperature, and a reminder that demucilaged coffees garner the same scores as coffees washed in a more traditional and water-intensive way, are crucial to making the case for further experimentation. In other words, saving water no longer necessitates a compromise in quality.

But How Does It Taste?

Close your eyes and picture coffee. Did you imagine a plant with green leaves and red fruit, or did you imagine a delicious brewed beverage? Unless you’re a farmer, the cup is where you probably are most aware of the relationship between water and coffee. Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood’s presentation “The Simplest Ingredient?” reminded us to be as thoughtful about the quality of our water as we are about the coffee we use to flavor it. Understanding the chemical composition of water most directly contributes to taste, not waste, but the two are linked inasmuch as every coffee requires dialing in and tweaking, which, in turn, requires water.

For retail businesses, the SCAA Green Guide’s second module focuses on water and includes advice on which equipment uses the most water (and the most energy, in the case of hot water), reveals where the greatest opportunities for savings lie and even gets specific about what kind of dishwashers are the most energy efficient. Water is cheaper than coffee, though, so waste is still an afterthought for most 
of us. But while its price might not rise as fast as coffee’s, we will face a lot more competition for water than for coffee.

And while growing, processing, and brewing coffee have obvious impacts on water quality and availability, it’s also important to note that the water footprint of 
a cup of coffee is more than the sum of those three parts. Water plays such a large role in manufacturing of all kinds that the water footprint of a cup of coffee might include the paper cup in which it’s served, or the foil-lined valve bag in which it’s sold. Consider, for example, that it takes 880 gallons of water to produce a gallon of milk.

Water is everywhere, but, as the title of the Symposium session suggested, it’s still largely invisible and ignored. That said, despite the fact that most of us still take clean water for granted, over the past few years we have finally as a culture begun to move from campaigns celebrating behavior modifications (think of learning to turn off the tap when you brush your teeth) to creating policy around water efficiency and allocation, as California’s governor has done. This is an opportune moment for coffee: as some shops and restaurants begin to consider their direct consumption of water, we might also begin to assess how well our suppliers are positioned to weather water shortage and what actions we might take collectively and individually. And if we don’t? Well, for California’s sake we could keep our fingers crossed for
the rain that El Niño typically brings, but then, this same climate pattern leads to drought in other parts of the world. It’s the new world water, and every drop counts.

kim elenaKim Elena Ionescu is the Director of Sustainability at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), where she works on behalf of coffee-centric businesses and organizations both large and small in the United States and beyond to tackle the challenges coffee faces now and in the future. Before joining SCAA, Kim spent a decade buying coffee and working directly with coffee farmers at Counter Culture Coffee in North Carolina and directing the company’s environmental and social sustainability strategy. Kim has a B.A. in English and Spanish from Tufts University, which liberal arts degree led her to seek employment as a barista without realizing it was the gateway to a complex and fascinating global industry.